Bag-check datapoint of the day, AA edition

By Felix Salmon
October 17, 2011
bright idea -- stolen shamelessly from Eric Joiner -- that airlines might charge a negative bag-check fee.

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In March 2010, I had the bright idea — stolen shamelessly from Eric Joiner — that airlines might charge a negative bag-check fee.

A lot of people, of course, simply hate the idea of risking their bags being lost, and/or of milling around at a baggage carousel waiting for their bags to arrive. But many others would love the idea of getting paid, in dollars or in frequent-flyer miles, for checking their bags…

Passengers would get on and off planes more quickly, the airlines would make more money, and everybody would be happier.

My commenters were unimpressed. Wouldn’t this just encourage people to pack more and therefore add more weight to the plane? Wouldn’t it even — at the margin — encourage people to check empty cardboard boxes, and not even bother picking them up at the other end?

But lo — look what American Airlines has just announced!

Through November 22, 2011, American Airlines will offer AAdvantage® elite status members the opportunity to earn a minimum of 500 AAdvantage bonus miles for checking bags on flights departing Boston Logan International Airport (BOS).

Earning the bonus miles is easy – simply visit a BOS Self-Service Check-In machine on the day of your departure and follow the normal steps to check-in with bags. Check at least one bag under your own name to earn the bonus miles, which will automatically post to your AAdvantage account five business days after you have completed the travel associated with your itinerary. As a reminder, all AAdvantage elite status members are entitled to check two bags free of charge (within current size and weight limits) in addition to earning the bonus miles with this special offer.

By confining the offer to elite status members — you need to be gold or platinum — AA has presumably minimized the number of people who will try to check empty cardboard boxes, or pack more than they need. But this does seem to confirm that AA has begun to realize that its current incentives are misaligned: it’s got far too many business travelers wheeling on luggage which is carefully designed to go right up to the limit of the carry-on rules. As a result, it takes far too much time to get people on and off planes, whose luggage bins are permanently overstuffed. And flyers unhappily schlep heavy bags all over airports across the country.

I have no idea whether AA’s experiment will catch on — for the time being it’s only at one airport, and it’s only lasting a few weeks. And AA is in pretty desperate straits right now — it’s probably willing to try things it wouldn’t normally consider. But this is a big conceptual leap from AA’s current policy of charging extra for checked bags and therefore giving people an incentive not to check. If it’s a success, dare we hope that those bag-check fees might start going away?

(via the indispensable Joe Brancatelli)


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I just traveled to Chicago via United, my first flight in two years. Both flights were full and the carry-on situation was really out of control. The overheads were filled before the plane was 3/4 full. So all the rest of the bags got gate checked for free, adding significantly to the boarding time.

Posted by BottyGuy | Report as abusive

Here is a super-interesting commentary on this: ewing/2011/10/16/why-the-tax-code-encour ages-american-airlines-to-award-bonus-mi les-for-checking-bags-in-boston

One key aspect: There are excise fees imposed on ticket prices that are not imposed on baggage fees. So, a $300 ticket and a $25 bag fee costs an airline less than a $325 ticket that includes the right to check a bag.

Posted by jfruh | Report as abusive

Uh, let me see if I have this straight: AA travelers (those who are being targeted) are =already= given =two= free checked bags with their ticket.

They’re either ***holes or Know Better (pick your H[0]), so they don’t do this.

So AA has to bribe them to do something they could do for free.

If AA really wanted to deal with the “too many carrions” issues, they would make that offer to non-elite passengers. If the FF program works the way my credit card’s program does, the $5 incentive cuts the cost of checking a bag to $20 (or maybe even a couple bucks less, if you plan in advance via the Interwebs).

There would be a noticeable marginal increase in utility to non-elite customers if the offer were made to them, who also may not be so familiar with how AA handles/processes their baggage.

Otoh, bribing the people who already don’t take what they can have for free (1) won’t have the same effect and (2) doesn’t get at the root cause of those travelers not checking baggage.

Congratulations, Felix, you’ve just endorsed a “solution” that doesn’t address the root cause–and will just delay AA figuring out what that is as they try to give away $5 bills to people who already have shown that they don’t want something for nothing.

Posted by klhoughton | Report as abusive

Are you kidding? It’s the “elite status” frequent flyers who are CONSTANTLY looking for ways to game the airlines’ system, partly as a kind of entertainment. See, for instance, this entertaining travelogue from a few years back.

Posted by Auros | Report as abusive

In contrast, your more typical flyer probably wouldn’t even think about this issue until they got to the airport with their oversized “carry-on”, and might well check it if offered an incentive. Then, the next time they go to book a flight, if they remember the experience at all, they’re going to have forgotten what airline it was with, question whether the program will still exist (does the day end in Y? then the airlines must be screwing with their price schemes!), and ultimately decide that even if it’s available it’s probably not worth the effort, since they never accumulate enough miles on any one airline to use them.

Posted by Auros | Report as abusive

Oh, and your comment system ate my first attempt at a link… ife/diary/features/2004/_7/entry_1.html

Posted by Auros | Report as abusive

I’m a Delta Platinum with well over half a million miles in the bank, most of which I’ll probably never use. And I get two free checked bags anyway. Do you seriously think that 500 miles is going to get me to change my behavior one bit?

More than that, your solution is targeting the wrong problem. People have become trained (either their employer requires it or just because they can) to compare the base prices published on Kayak, Expedia, or similar web compare site. If an airline gave you something, even if it’s just miles, to check a bag, they will certainly have to raise their base prices to make up for the lost baggage fee, and no longer be competitive on the comparison. Passengers compare base fare, and don’t think about the possible additions like bag fees until they check in, when it becomes an annoyance.

Airlines won’t make up for it by turning planes around faster, because there’s only so fast you can get people on and off an airplane. The airlines are simply playing the game that’s in town. You need something that sounds like an advantage to the passenger (waiting 30 minutes or more in the terminal for your bag isn’t) and is revenue neutral, or all the airlines need to do the same thing.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

Wouldn’t it be much simpler to shrink the allowable size for carry-ons? Or maybe simply institute a rule stating than all bags with wheels (i.e. virtually all suitcases) must be checked. Limit carry-ons to backpacks, purses, and laptop bags and the problem solves itself.

Posted by mfw13 | Report as abusive

Labor costs are huge for checked baggage — union guys running around in expensive trucks. Having passengers carry on their own bags allows Airlines to capture the imputed income its passengers “earned” by carrying their own bags. The “income” is realized (tax free!) in the form of avoided costs for wages that would have been paid to baggage handlers, and goes right to the airlines’ bottom line. It’s no surprise that most airlines don’t encourage passengers to use expensive, unionized (or expensive non-union) baggage handlers.

Posted by maynardGkeynes | Report as abusive

This is REALLY badly targeted. Elite status flyers are business travelers. They fly first/business or get priority boarding, so there is always room for their bags, and they value their time very highly. Your meeting at the client can’t depend on how long it takes the carosel to spit out your bag, and your trip is too short and your attire and agenda too specific and expensive to risk lost luggage.

The people that should be encouraged to check bags are the casual vacationers and infrequent flyers who have irregular sized luggage, try to bring along too much stuff, and place a low value on their time.

Posted by BradH | Report as abusive

You get miles to check a bag at Boston. What happens on the return flight?

Posted by RZ0 | Report as abusive

I am an AAdvantage member since 1990 and I think this is typical behavior for AA. I also would rather take Greyhound than fly on AA, but what the hey.

Posted by OnkelBob | Report as abusive

Just get an AA credit card or lite status with oneworld to offset bag charges. Really easy! Torsten @

Posted by MightyTravels | Report as abusive